Vol. 77, No. 2Cover stories

Vaccinating kids against crime

Youth programs for long-term success

As part of the Difference Maker program, students learn that it feels good to do something positive in their community. Credit: Jill Lambert, Rick Hansen School Program


When he was a general duty police officer, RCMP Cpl. Kevin Krygier got tired of being seen as the "bad news police," only showing up when there was a problem. And he saw the negative effect this had on youth.

He also saw the issues that police and communities were dealing with every day — kids getting involved in drugs, gangs and bullying.

"It's just anti-social, assaultive, counter-productive-type behaviours," says Krygier.

With children of his own and witnessing the struggles first-hand as a police officer, he wanted to connect with youth in a more positive way.

Krygier started the School Sports Program, where he and a team of RCMP officers from Richmond, B.C., visited schools in the area and challenged students to play them in a game of basketball. He noticed a change for the better.

"Now we go to the schools and the kids are high fiving us," says Krygier. "They can relate to us a little better and that's the whole idea."

Making a difference

But it didn't stop there. Krygier, who's now in charge of crime prevention in Richmond, partnered with the Rick Hansen Foundation School Program, which fosters social responsibility and teaches youth about courage and determination.

"A difference maker is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things to help others," says Ewa Holender with the Rick Hansen School Program.

Together, they developed a pilot program called Difference Maker, and brought it to four schools in Richmond — two elementary and two secondary. The program engages and empowers students to make a positive difference in their community and to prevent youth involvement in crime. The secondary students mentor the elementary students.

While officers work directly with the students, the program also uses ambassadors, including former Olympic snowboarder Alexa Loo.

"The goal of the whole program is to get students to find their cause — the thing that they are passionate about and do something about it," says Holender. "From that, they learn the basic rule that doing good things feels good and hopefully it will encourage them to a lifetime of doing good things and making a positive difference."

The first school, Mitchell Elementary, chose to do a random-acts-of-kindness project in the community. The random acts included cleaning up a local park and storming a city bus to hand out gift certificates to unsuspecting riders.

Krygier says there are many layers to the program. It helps students develop leadership skills, have a positive connection to their community and have a stronger relationship with the police, to name a few. And it helps police because not only is it therapeutic for them, it also gives officers a way to engage young people and prevent negative interactions with students in the years to come.

Youth convention connects kids to community

For more than 15 years, the RCMP's Drugs and Organized Crime Awareness Service (DOCAS) in British Columbia has been doing prevention work with students of all ages with a strategy called Community Prevention Education Continuum.

But instead of implementing the framework of the continuum inside schools, DOCAS is taking it out of the classroom and into the community as part of a new pilot in prevention — a youth convention.

DOCAS brought the East Kootneay community together with students in Grades 8 and 10 in Cranbrook, B.C.

"We're trying to connect the kids back to their culture, their community, the law, to the province, to the government, to Canada," says S/Sgt. Anthony Choy, the non-commissioned officer in charge of DOCAS.

The first convention theme, "Journal of Happiness," was chosen by the community. "We called it that because we're trying to say to the kids there is no destination that's happy; it's being happy with where you're at," says convention organizer, Cpl. Alan Nutini.

Students registered for two of six different workshops in advance and attended a keynote address and a wrap-up session. Each session focused on issues affecting the students today, like being connected and relating to the opposite sex, among others.

With seven schools and approximately 1,600 students in attendance, the convention allowed the RCMP to reach more kids in less time. And with 20 community organizations set up at conference booths and food vendors, the students were exposed to different organizations in the community, which Nutini says shows they're valued.

"Engaging the community is something we needed to do a better job of in our prevention," says Nutini. "I'm not a believer that you just lock something in and say we're going to do this and just stick with it. You need to change; you need to challenge yourself to be better."

— Deidre Seiden

"By doing this and creating this positive change now, we're hoping we'll be able to defer them from becoming involved in criminal activity and make them more inclined to become involved in positive things," says Krygier. "If we can do that, maybe we can change the course of how this particular generation turns out."

Programs like Difference Maker are an alternative to enforcement and require a change in mindset.

"We're so wrapped up in our lives and enforcement that we've lost sight of the fact that prevention is really the key," says Krygier.

Krygier knows that it's not going to work 100 per cent of the time, but he says even if it works 60 per cent of the time, that's a significant improvement.

"It's like getting vaccination to prevent disease," says Krygier. "This is like getting vaccinated against crime."

And prevention and intervention programs are proving to be effective in communities across the country.

The Hub model

In 2011, police in Prince Albert, Sask., the third largest city in that province, were facing high crime rates. They quickly realized they couldn't arrest their way out the problem.

"It's expensive and it doesn't really help," says Cst. Matthew Gray of the Prince Albert Police Service. "We need to make the distinction between who is a bad person and who is in unfortunate circumstances because there is a huge distinction to be made there. You can't lump an angry kid in with a bad kid."

They looked for a sustainable solution and came up with the Prince Albert Community Mobilization model, or the Hub, to build safer and healthier communities, and reduce crime and victimization.

The Hub is an early intervention process that brings together police, social services, schools, public health and other community service agencies that take an integrated approach to connect individuals and families to services they need within 24 to 48 hours.

"The Hub model is risk driven and evidence based, so certain behaviours, certain types of things that happen in school, show that a particular youth might be on a path to what we call acutely elevated risk," says Gray.

While the Hub is not specifically for youth, a large percentage of their clients are young people and families. And by all the agencies coming together to work collaboratively, they can see the full picture.

If police keep re-arresting someone and don't know what else to do, they bring them to the Hub. Here, they might learn the person also has addiction issues and problems at home whereas working alone, police may never know this. Getting youth the help they need can prevent more problems down the road.

"That's the whole point of early intervention," says Gray. "Put the time and effort into early intervention so you don't have to spend a whole lot of time and effort downstream. And that's very large scope, but that's essentially what it is, the whole notion of spending a dime to save a dollar."

With the help and support of Building Partnerships to Reduce Crime (BPRC), a provincial program, the Hub model has spread from Prince Albert to 12 communities in Saskatchewan, and there are versions popping up in Ontario and the United States.

"A lot of communities started to recognize the work that happened in Prince Albert and were excited about the initiative," says Anna Robinson, a consultant with BPRC. "A model like this is key because it's an opportunity to intervene in those critical moments when there is risk and respond right away by connecting somebody to services, to make sure it doesn't get to a point where suppression is needed."

Sgt. Craig Nyirfa and Cst. Jody Culbert from the Saskatoon Police Service are part of the Hub in Saskatoon, Sask., which has been in place for a more than a year.

Nyirfa says the Hub allows police to achieve better outcomes by collaborating with people within the community.

"It's doing business in a different way," says Nyirfa. "To resolve some of these issues, you have to understand first that they cross many different disciplines. The solution is through suppression and enforcement, but also through prevention and intervention."

They're already seeing results.

"We're seeing families that aren't involved with agencies anymore because they have the connections to different programs they need to be successful," says Culbert. "We're seeing kids who were once getting in trouble with the police because they weren't in school, who are now going to school."

The whole puzzle

The multi-agency approach is also seeing success in Selkirk, Man., with the Selkirk Team for At-Risk Youths (START) program.

"The youth are our future and they're struggling," says START co-ordinator Tammy Thompson. "They deal with a lot of different issues. There's a lot of availability of drugs, information that is out there. Families are struggling and they need help."

START has been helping at-risk youths between the ages of 11 and 18 since 2002.

For years, Thompson has seen what can happen when different agencies such as the RCMP, schools, child and family services, mental health, addictions and public health work together with youth and their families on what they call case-conferencing — when they all sit down at the table together to discuss the situation.

Youth who were once struggling with addictions, mental health problems and getting in trouble with the law now graduate high school and have better relationships with their families.

"Each agency has a piece of the puzzle, but we don't know what the whole picture is until we put the puzzle together," says Thompson. "Once we have all the pieces of the puzzle, then we can start to make some effective change."

Andrea Pietracci, 24, was referred to START as a teenager after being arrested for drug use. She was bullied and turned to drugs to cope. Her anger affected her grades at school, her relationships at home and eventually turned into violence against her mother.

START changed her life. "Once I started getting more involved with START, and I got to know Tammy more, I felt like a person," says Pietracci. "I felt more important and I didn't feel like I was just another case number."

At START, the behaviour is never the issue — the behaviour is a symptom of the bigger issue.

"I don't know any kid who wants to be in the youth centre or criminally involved," says Thompson. "Every kid wants to be successful. Every parent I work with, regardless of skill level, loves their kids. So it's just a matter of determining what interventions are required to get the family and youth back on track."

The START team continues to help no matter how long it takes. They check in with the youth every month to see what they need and find out how things are going.

"We're here for the long haul," says Thompson. "When you have kids who are really at risk, it's not something that's going to turn around the next day."

For Pietracci, as a mother of two herself now, she doesn't like to think about where she'd be today without the program's intervention. "I'd probably still be using and I probably wouldn't have as good of a relationship as I do with my family," says Pietracci. "'I'm just really happy with my life and where it is now and I owe a lot of that to the START program."

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